Richer cities become less dense

Much of the debate around housing in New Zealand seems to involve “urban planners”, and people with similar inclinations, trying to tell people how they should live, and what sort of houses (and what sized sections) they should live in.  In particular, the planners seem to have quite strong preferences for higher rates of urban density.  Some of this seems to be about their own lifestyle preferences, and some the alleged agglomeration benefits.  We’ll come back to agglomeration over the coming months.  But here I thought I would just highlight some fascinating data I stumbled on a while ago on the Demographia website on urban historical densities.    Here is some of the data on historical urban densities.

First, a newer city; New York since 1800

new york

And then two older European cities.

London since 1680


And Paris since 1650


I haven’t looked at how the data were put together, and I’m sure there must be considerable margins of error around any of the older estimates.

But….they paint a pretty clear time series picture for each of three of the rich world’s great cities: as cities get richer, their citizens seem to demand more space, not less.  This shouldn’t be a surprise –  think of the tenements that the poor lived in in earlier stages of urban development, and of the congestion and squalor of much-poorer developing cities today.

Of course, governments and “urban planners” can stymie these trends –  by applying land use restrictions.  But in whose interests are such restrictions applied, and who is positioned to make those judgements?    Shouldn’t policy facilitate private preferences, whether for more density or more “sprawl”?

And none of this bears on questions of why some rich cities (eg in US or Australia) are much less dense than comparable size cities in other places.  And it has nothing to do with the point that in any country the biggest population centres are likely to be more dense than smaller places.

But…to repeat…history suggests that, all else equal, as cities and countries get richer then. all else equal, their inhabitants prefer more space not less.

2 thoughts on “Richer cities become less dense

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